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Important factors shaping social relationships under the French Absolutist Monarchy

By ylime3fru May 27, 2014 1713 Words
Social relationships were important components of the French absolute monarchy. Historians agree that to achieve supreme control and national unity, Kings relied heavily on military strength. There is little question that absolutist France came to posses the largest standing army Europe had ever seen. Armies made France a powerful state, and the King a powerful ruler. However kings also controlled through non military means, establishing bureaucratic and legal systems and developing an absolutist culture with the King at the centre. These manifestations of absolutism, at varying degrees of significance, helped shape social relationships, and in turn, enforced the absolutist regime. Contrastingly, other historians maintain that the absolute system worked within pre-existing social codes, which were more influential in shaping social relationships. Historians herald the significance of these different factors because they take a variety of historiographical approaches.

Absolutism redefined the socio-political structures and language of court society. Court cabals and courtesies became important factors that influenced social relationships. Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie uses the court memoirs of Duc de Saint Simone, to explain the system of court cabals. Ladurie explains how the King placed himself at the top of the court hierarchy, and held a number of favourites.1 Lower courtiers would group around these powerful individuals, such as King Louis XIV’s wife Madame de Maintenon, to gain power, wealth, status and other privileges through association.2 Saint Simon’s court memoirs are a more traditional historiographical source, detailing friendships, marriages and patronage relationships that formed and separated court cabals.3 However Laudrie himself admits the limitations of the source, stating that it has a tendency to be subjective with some bias, and inaccurate facts.4 But as Ladurie states, his purpose was not statistical detail, but to present a ‘model’ for the network of social relationships in court society, and to reveal that they placed the king in an enormous position of influence to determine courtier’s social standing.5 Orest Ranum consults similar sources and concludes that courtesies were a new political language that redefined the way courtiers socialised and communicated, while also being a political tool for negotiating the cabal system. Ranum analyses Theodore Godefroy’s Grand Ceremonial de France from 1619, one of the many courtesy manuals written for courtiers.6 Absolutist monarchies did not invent courtesies, but Ranum argues that these manuals justified and systematized these social codes.7 Courtesy rules dictated the nature of social affiliations and interactions, becoming a vital political language in court society, as a means of showing or denying respect or favour to individuals and cabals. For example “hat doffing… and lowered eyes” became the language of respect that carried on along the hierarchy, with the King at the top.8 Ranum, citing historian William Farr Church, claims discourtesies shown to Kings were “insults to God himself, ” enforcing enormous regal authority.9 Moreover, under Louis XIV, all topics except frivolous small talk, were branded ‘discourteous,’ in an attempt to repress uprisings.10 Both historians analyse similar sources and share the conclusion that absolutism created a new social order, designed to enforce the King’s power.

Sarah Hanley however, argues bureaucratic models, established by the absolutist state, were important factors shaping family and gender relationships. Hanley investigates the ‘Family State Compact,’ revealing that it enforced distinct gender roles and enshrined the patriarchal family model in legislation. This model was in turn used to explain and justify absolutism.11 Hanley approaches her study with an “ethnographic” perspective.12 She states that conventional historiography has always been a uniform process of selecting documents to confirm a point, but more recent scholarship on social history now seeks to gain greater scope and depth by viewing a range of non-traditional sources.13 From these historians may distil messages about social life.14 Hanley’s use of primary government legislation and court case documents, are examples of expanding historical sources. The Marriage Regulations, Reproduction Rules and Marital Separation Arrangements ensured family finances remained under paternal authority, helped guarantee the legitimacy of children and made it harder to break up marriages and families.15 But as Hanley indicates, the underlying purpose of these laws was to constitutionalise patriarchal control over all family affairs.16 It was a key bureaucratic factor that helped enforce male social and economic dominance, within the family. Furthermore, the patriarchal ‘family’ worked to justify and naturalise the appointment of an absolutist ruler, who could be seen as the “husband” and “father” of the state. 17 Furthermore, Hanley’s examination of court cases exposes legal limitations on female political and economic privileges within their marital and civic relationships. Women gained social and economic status through marriage and childbearing, but the Compact put men in greater control these activities, disempowering women and forcing them to break laws for economic and social survival.18 In the Digard- du Piquet case for example, Barbe-Francoise Digard was charged with “supposition d’enfant” because she faked the birth of a child to avoid becoming a childless widow and losing socioeconomic status.19 Furthermore, this source reveals that legal structures shaped collaborative relationships between women of different social classes, as Barbe sought the assistance of midwifes, paupers and a prostitute.20 Thus while primary accounts such as Saint-Simon’s Memoirs explain social and genealogical connections at their surface, Handley’s wider variety of social records reveals in greater depth, the gendered social constructions that defined social relationships in the absolutist monarchy, as well as unexpected cross-class relationships.

Cultural manifestations of absolutism in art, gardens and entertainment were further significant factors shaping social relationships. Diverging from traditional and social historiographies, Peter Burke, Chandra Mukerji and Craig Koslofsky take an interdisciplinary approach, and offer different arguments. Burke applies poetic and art historical concepts to court social life. He argues that the language of allegory, hyperbole and euphemism in songs, literature, sermons, painting and other mediums communicated a lofty ‘high style’ that associated the King with exalted figures and ideas.21 For example Louis XIV was pained as St John the Baptist and Apollo.22 Courtiers learnt these references and conducted themselves accordingly, with grandeur and dignity.23 In turn, this new language displayed, magnified and rationalised the King as a sublime and spiritual ruler.24 In contrast, Mukerji applies geopolitical concepts to understanding social relationships. Mukerji references historian Michel Foucault’s theory that 17th century society began to view material possessions as indicators of wealth and power.25 Increasing trade, scientific and technological innovations made material items more prominent in social gatherings and conversations.26 Mukerji argues absolutism worked within this materialist culture, valuing land the most as a material item.27 In a geopolitical way, Kings enforced power by appropriating and manipulating land into formal gardens. In turn, this established material ownership as a language of power.28 Material goods came to dominate social and political relationships during the 17th century.29 Koslofsky similarly seeks specialised research on theatre and festivals, alongside primary accounts. However he argues the political purposes of nocturnal entertainment were significant factors shaping court life.30 For example, Baroque night time theatre developed and through its illusionistic lighting, performances such as Louis XIV’s “Ballet de la Nuit,” physically presented Louis as a ‘radiant’ King.31 Furthermore, court diaries from Versailles reveal an increase in concerts, balls, and billiards, offering different opportunities for socialisation.32 Nocturnal activities changed and began to characterise social life.33 Memoirs by Louis XIV and absolutist critic Jean de La Bruyere (1645-96) also divulge that night time entertainments were deliberate distractions from political issues.34 Koslofsky maintains Kings communicated and secured their power through nocturnal spectacles, which consequently transformed court social relationships.35

However unlike other historians discussed, James Farr argues social relationships were shaped by concepts of ‘Honour’ that pre-dated absolutist expressions of power. Like other historians, Farr relies on a primary source: Farther Lame’s eye witness account of the trial and execution of disgraced nobleman Philippe Giroux. Unconventionally, Giroux did not confess his crime, thus preserving honour but damning his soul.36 More important to him was maintaining honour for his family and young son.37 Honour defined people’s positions of power and status.38 It was treated as an item that could be appropriated through displays of respect.39 Lame’s text, confirmed by trial records, reveals Giroux bowed and spoke respectfully to colleagues and onlookers, to earn back some of the honour he had lost.40 Through displays of respect, Grioux also sought favour with his patron the Prince of Conde, who could gain him a King’s pardon.41 Farr’s study revises primary documents and challenges past historians such as Ladurie and Orest, previously discussed. Courtesy codes, and court cabals were not just to gain political power, but were part of a complex language of honour that defined social affiliations and behaviours.42 It is possible, albeit largely speculative, that Kings consciously manipulated this established framework of honour to their political advantage. But what Grioux’s trial reveals is honour was a precious commodity, and was central to the way people conversed and connected.

The majority of historians discussed, agree that the most important factors shaping social relationships under the absolute monarchy, were essentially the absolute monarchy itself. Absolutism established a new laws, social customs, entertainment and art that had a dramatic impact on social relationships involving gender, class, marriage, family ties and friendships. But in contrast, historians also argue that, as in any society, there were already complex social codes that absolutism worked within. It is too simplistic to argue for one core factor, because very little of the past remains. What the multiplicity of arguments instead convey, are the variety of historiographical methods historians use to understand the significance of these few surviving remnants.


Burke, Peter. History Today. New Haven. Yale University Press, 1992. pp. 24-30.

Farr, James R., “The Death of a Judge: Performance, Honor and Legitimacy in Seventeenth-Century France”, Journal of Modern History 75, no. 1 (2003): pp. 1-22.

Hanley, Sarah. “Endangering the State: Family Formation and State Building in Early Modern France.” French Historical Studies 16, no. 1 (1989): pp. 1-27.

Koslofsky, Craig. “Princes of Darkness: The Night at Court, 1650-1750”, Journal of Modern History 79, no. 2 (2007): pp. 235-73.

Le Roy Ladurie, Emmanuel, The Mind and Method of the Historian, trans. Sian and Ben Reynolds, Chicago, University of Chicago Press; Harvester Press, 1981. pp. 149-73.

Mukerji, Chandra. “The Political Mobilization of Nature in Seventeenth-Century French Formal Gardens”, Theory and Society 23, no. 5 (1994): pp. 651-77.

Ranum, Orest. “Courtesy, Absolutism, and the Rise of the French State, 1630-1660,” Journal of Modern History 52, no. 3 (1980): pp. 426-51.

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